White supremacy has ideological foundations that at least date back to 17th-century scientific racism, the predominant paradigm of human variation that helped shape international and intra-national relations from the latter part of the Age of Enlightenment (in European history) through the late 20th century (marked by the abolition of apartheid in South Africa in 1991, followed by that country's first multiracial elections in 1994).
White supremacy was dominant in the United States even after the American Civil War and it also persisted for decades after the Reconstruction Era. In large areas of the U.S. this included the holding of non-whites (specifically African Americans) in chattel slavery with four million denied freedom from bondage. The outbreak of the Civil War saw the desire to uphold white supremacy cited as a cause for state secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America. In an editorial about Native Americans in 1890, author L. Frank Baum wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."
In some parts of the United States, many people who were considered non-white were disenfranchised, barred from government office, and prevented from holding most government jobs well into the second half of the 20th century. Since the founding of the United States, when the right to vote was restricted to white men of property, professor Leland T. Saito of USC writes: "Throughout the history of the United States race has been used by whites for legitimizing and creating difference and social, economic and political exclusion." The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only.
The denial of social and political freedom continued into the mid-20th century resulting in the Civil Rights Movement. On the U.S. immigration laws prior to 1965, sociologist Stephen Klineberg cited the law as clearly declaring "that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race." The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional Northern European and Germanic groups, and as a result would significantly alter the demographic mix in the U.S. Many U.S. states banned interracial marriage through anti-miscegenation laws until 1967, when these laws were invalidated by the Supreme Court of the United States' decision in Loving v. Virginia. Additionally, white leaders often viewed Native Americans as obstacles to economic and political progress with respect to the natives' claims to land and rights.
The term's recent rise in popularity among leftist activists has been characterized by some as counterproductive. Specialist in language and on race relations, John McWhorter has described its use as straying from commonly accepted meaning to encompass much less extreme issues which thereby cheapens the term and can shut-down productive discussion. Political columnist Kevin Drum attributes the term's recent popularity to frequent use by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and describes it as a "terrible fad" which fails to convey nuance and should be reserved for those who are trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks and not used for any type of less severe racist belief or action. In an opinion piece in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has said that the usage of the term by activists creates confusion because it strays from the common definition.
Nazism promoted the idea of a superior Germanic people or Aryan race in Germany during the early 20th century. Notions of white supremacy and Aryan racial superiority were combined in the 19th century, with white supremacists maintaining the belief that white people were members of an Aryan "master race" which is superior to other races, particularly the Jews who were described as the "Semitic race", Slavs and Gypsies, which they associated with "cultural sterility". Arthur de Gobineau, a French racial theorist and aristocrat, blamed the fall of the ancient régime in France on racial degeneracy caused by racial intermixing, which he argued had destroyed the purity of the Nordic or Germanic race. Gobineau's theories, which attracted a strong following in Germany, emphasized the existence of an irreconcilable polarity between Aryan or Germanic peoples and Jewish cultures.
In order to preserve the Aryan or Nordic race, the Nazis introduced the Nuremberg racial laws in 1935, which forbade sexual relations and marriages between Germans and Jews, and later between Germans and Romani and Slavs.
The Nazis used the Mendelian inheritance theory to argue that social traits were innate, claiming that there was a racial nature associated with certain general traits such as inventiveness or criminal behavior.
Many modern-day white supremacist groups around the world reuse Nazi symbolism, including the swastika, to represent their beliefs.
According to the 2012 annual report of Germany's interior intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, at the time there were 26,000 right-wing extremists living in Germany, including 6000 Neo-Nazis.
A number of Southern African nations experienced severe racial tension and conflict during global decolonization, particularly as white Africans of European ancestry fought to protect their preferential social and political status. Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times under the Dutch Empire, and continued when the British took over the Cape of Good Hope in 1795. Apartheid as an officially structured policy was introduced by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party after the general election of 1948. Legislation divided inhabitants into four racial groups—"black", "white", "coloured", and "Indian", the last two of which were divided into several sub-classifications. In 1970, the Afrikaner-run government abolished non-white political representation, and starting that year black people were deprived of South African citizenship. South Africa abolished apartheid in 1991. In Rhodesia, a predominantly white government issued its own unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom during an unsuccessful attempt to avoid immediate majority rule. Following the Rhodesian Bush War which was fought by African nationalists, Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith acceded to biracial political representation in 1978 and the state achieved recognition from the United Kingdom as Zimbabwe in 1980.
Neo-Nazi organisations embracing white-supremacist ideology are present in many countries in the world. It has been claimed in 2007, that Russian Neo-Nazis accounted for "half of the world's total".
The term white supremacy is used in academic studies of racial power to denote a system of structural or societal racism which privileges white people over others, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. White racial advantages occur both at a collective and an individual level (ceteris paribus, i. e., when individuals are compared that do not relevantly differ except in ethnicity). Legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley explains this definition as follows:
By "white supremacy" I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.
This and similar definitions are adopted or proposed by Charles Mills, bell hooks, David Gillborn, Jessie Daniels and Neely Fuller Jr, and are widely used in critical race theory and intersectional feminism. Some anti-racist educators, such as Betita Martinez and the Challenging White Supremacy workshop, also use the term in this way. The term expresses historic continuities between a pre-African-American Civil Rights Movement era (1954–68) of open white supremacism and the current racial power structure of the United States. It also expresses the visceral impact of structural racism through "provocative and brutal" language that characterizes racism as "nefarious, global, systemic, and constant." Academic users of the term sometimes prefer it to racism because it allows for a disconnection between racist feelings and white racial advantage or privilege.
The use of the academic definition of the term white supremacy has been criticized by Conor Friedersdorf for the confusion it creates for the general public in how it differs from the more common dictionary definition and that it is likely to alienate those it hopes to convince.
Supporters of Nordicism consider the "Nordic peoples" to be a superior race. By the early 19th century, white supremacy was attached to emerging theories of racial hierarchy. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer attributed civilisational primacy to the white race:
The highest civilization and culture, apart from the ancient Hindus and Egyptians, are found exclusively among the white races; and even with many dark peoples, the ruling caste or race is fairer in colour than the rest and has, therefore, evidently immigrated, for example, the Brahmans, the Incas, and the rulers of the South Sea Islands. All this is due to the fact that necessity is the mother of invention because those tribes that emigrated early to the north, and there gradually became white, had to develop all their intellectual powers and invent and perfect all the arts in their struggle with need, want and misery, which in their many forms were brought about by the climate.
The eugenicist Madison Grant argued in his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, that the Nordic race had been responsible for most of humanity's great achievements, and that admixture was "race suicide". In this book, Europeans who are not of Germanic origin but have Nordic characteristics such as blonde/red hair and blue/green/gray eyes, were considered to be a Nordic admixture and suitable for Aryanization.
In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is the group most associated with the white supremacist movement. Many white supremacist groups are based on the concept of preserving genetic purity, and they do not focus solely on discrimination based on skin color. The KKK's reasons for supporting racial segregation are not primarily based on religious ideals, but some Klan groups are openly Protestant. The KKK and other white supremacist groups like Aryan Nations, The Order and the White Patriot Party are considered antisemitic.
Nazi Germany promulgated white supremacy based on the belief that the Aryan race, or the Germans, were the master race. It was combined with a eugenics programme that aimed for racial hygiene through compulsory sterilization of sick individuals and extermination of Untermenschen ("subhumans"): Slavs, Jews and Romani, which eventually culminated in the Holocaust.
Christian Identity is another movement closely tied to white supremacy. Some white supremacists identify themselves as Odinists, although many Odinists reject white supremacy. Some white supremacist groups, such as the South African Boeremag, conflate elements of Christianity and Odinism. Creativity (formerly known as "The World Church of the Creator") is atheistic and it denounces Christianity and other theistic religions. Aside from this, its ideology is similar to many Christian Identity groups because it believes in an antisemitic conspiracy theory that there is a "Jewish conspiracy" in control of governments, the banking industry and the media. Matthew F. Hale, founder of the World Church of the Creator, has published articles stating that all races other than white are "mud races," which is what the group's religion teaches.
The white supremacist ideology has become associated with a racist faction of the skinhead subculture, despite the fact that when the skinhead culture first developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, it was heavily influenced by black fashions and music, especially Jamaican reggae and ska, and African American soul music.
White supremacist recruitment activities are conducted primarily at a grassroots level and on the Internet. Widespread access to the Internet has led to a dramatic increase in white supremacist websites. The Internet provides a venue to openly express white supremacist ideas at little social cost, because people who post the information are able to remain anonymous.
In February 1962 George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, spoke at a Nation of Islam rally in Chicago, where he was applauded by Elijah Muhammad as he pronounced: "I am proud to stand here before black men. I believe Elijah Muhammed is the Adolf Hitler of the black man!" Rockwell had attended, but did not speak at, an earlier NOI rally in June 1961 in Washington, D.C. and even once donated $20 to the NOI. In 1965, after breaking with the Nation of Islam and denouncing its separatist doctrine, Malcolm X told his followers that the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad had made secret agreements with the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan.
Rockwell and other white supremacists (e.g. Willis Carto) also supported less well-known black separatist groups, such as Hassan Jeru-Ahmed's Blackman's Army of Liberation, in reference to which Rockwell told Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Drosnin in 1967 that if "Any Negro wants to go back to Africa, I'll carry him piggy-back."
More recently, Tom Metzger, erstwhile Ku Klux Klan leader from California, spoke at a NOI rally in Los Angeles in September 1985 and donated $100 to the group. In October of that same year, over 200 prominent white supremacists met at former Klan leader Robert E. Miles's farm to discuss an alliance with Louis Farrakhan, head of the NOI. In attendance were Edward Reed Fields of the National States' Rights Party, Richard Girnt Butler of the Aryan Nations, Don Black, Roy Frankhouser, and Metzger, who said that "America is like a rotting carcass. The Jews are living off the carcass like the parasites they are. Farrakhan understands this."